Imagine vast glaciers, towering peaks, and an array of wildlife so varied, it boggles the mind. You’re thinking of Alaska, an adventurer’s dream and nature lover’s paradise. Renowned for its stunning landscapes, Alaska is home to some of the most breathtaking and diverse national parks in the United States. In these pristine places of natural beauty, wildlife thrives and visitors can embark on unforgettable journeys into the wild. From the crystal clear waters of the fjords to the icy peaks of its mountains, Alaska’s national parks offer a glimpse into a world seemingly untouched by time.
With eight incredible national parks, each offering its own unique mix of landscapes, experiences, and wildlife, planning a trip can seem overwhelming. Luckily, that’s where Big Rock Travel comes in. I plan trips for my clients to Alaska for clients every year. My clients have traveled to four of the eight parks. I partner with Alaska destination experts and together we provide expert advice on when to go, what to do, and where to stay. Whether you prefer a guided tour or a custom-tailored adventure, I can help.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these eight natural wonders, and discover why they make Alaska a spectacular travel destination.
1. Denali National Park and Preserve
Attracting adventurers from around the world, Denali National Park and Preserve is a jewel in Alaska’s crown. Sprawled across six million acres, this national treasure offers up some of the most striking landscapes in the world. And presiding over it all is Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America towering at a whopping 20,310 feet, an awe-inspiring sight visible from almost anywhere within the park (as long as the weather permits).
The park boasts a surprisingly diverse range of wildlife for its extreme environment. It’s one of the few places where you can still spot grizzly bears, wolves, caribou, and Dall sheep in the wild. In the summer, golden eagles swoop through the sky, while the ground teems with small mammals like marmots and squirrels.
But Denali National Park isn’t just a grand spectacle to be admired from afar. There’s a whole range of experiences to be had. With numerous trails offering unparalleled views, hiking is a popular activity. Other opportunities in and around Denali include sled dog demonstrations, rafting, ATVing, fishing, or even taking an exhilarating helicopter or airplane tour for a bird’s-eye view of this majestic landscape.
For these reasons, Denali is a very popular destination for first-time visitors to Alaska. My husband and I took our kids to Denali and we all loved it.
2. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
True to its name, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve lies entirely within the Arctic Circle. This park is a wilderness paradise, with no roads or trails; only vast, unspoiled landscapes, filled with caribou herds and the magnificent Brooks Range.
Gates of the Arctic is accessible only by bush plane or hiking in. For those reasons, it is recommended for experienced backcountry travelers and is not a good choice for first-time Alaska visitors.
3. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
At the heart of the park are its magnificent glaciers. Some are tidewater glaciers that spill into the sea, breaking off or calving to form dramatic icebergs. Others, known as terrestrial glaciers, stretch across the land carving out valleys and shaping the landscape. The sight of these ancient rivers of ice sliding towards the ocean is both humbling and captivating, a spectacle you won’t soon forget.
But Glacier Bay isn’t just about icy landscapes. It’s also one of Alaska’s richest marine environments. On a clear day, the park’s waters teem with sea otters, seals, and a variety of whale species, including orcas and humpbacks. Birdwatchers will be delighted by the range of birds that call the park home, from puffins to bald eagles.
Cruises are the most popular way to view the park’s fjords, tidewater glaciers, and abundant seals, sea otters, and humpback whales. While large cruise ships do visit Glacier Bay, they do not dock. If you are serious about seeing nature up close, I highly recommend an expedition cruise which offers a more immersive experience. Onboard naturalists and guides will enhance your journey and you may have an opportunity to explore the fjords in a Zodiac or kayak.
4. Katmai National Park and Preserve
Wild, dramatic, and full of surprises, Katmai National Park and Preserve is renowned for its phenomenal landscapes and its amazing wildlife. Covering over four million acres, it’s a place where you can truly immerse yourself in raw, untamed beauty.
Katmai is most famous for its population of brown bears. Home to the highest concentration in the world of these magnificent creatures, Katmai provides unique bear-viewing experiences that draw thousands of visitors each year. Whether it’s watching them peacefully grazing in lush meadows or catching salmon in rushing rivers, these encounters with wild bears in their natural habitat are undeniably captivating.
But bears aren’t the only thing to see in Katmai. One of the park’s most unusual features is the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Created by the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, this 40-square-mile landscape is filled with lava flows, ash deposits, and a vast array of fascinating geological formations. It’s like stepping onto another planet and offers unique hiking opportunities.
Katmai National Park is accessible by seaplane. It is best for travelers who have at least two weeks to see Alaska or have been to Alaska before. I planned a trip to Katmai for a client who had a great experience there. It is definitely on my personal bucket list.
5. Kenai Fjords National Park
The pristine wilderness of Kenai Fjords National Park is a place where ice, ocean, and forest converge. Located on the edge of the Kenai Peninsula in south-central Alaska, the park’s 670,000 acres provide the perfect habitat for stunning wildlife and a unique medley of ecosystems.
One of the park’s defining features is the Harding Icefield. This 300-square-mile expanse of ice, one of the largest ice fields in the United States, feeds nearly 40 glaciers that carve out the park’s fjords.
These glaciers calve into the sea, creating dramatic displays that are a highlight for visitors. Boat tours (day trips, not overnight cruises) offer the best chance to witness such calving events, as well as close-up views of the marine life that thrives in the park’s waters.
Kenai Fjords is home to an astounding array of wildlife. As you navigate the deep, icy waters of the fjords by boat, don’t be surprised to see humpback whales breaching, orca pods hunting in unison, sea otters frolicking among the kelp, and seals sunning on the ice rafts. On land, you’ll find black bears and moose in the forests, and towering cliffs that serve as nurseries for thousands of seabirds, including the comical puffin.
Those looking to explore the park on foot will find ample opportunities in Exit Glacier, the park’s only portion accessible by road. Trail options range from short, easy walks around the nature center to more challenging hikes that include the stunning 8.2-mile round-trip Harding Icefield Trail, rewarding hikers with breathtaking panoramic vistas of snow and ice stretching as far as the eye can see.
Kayaking is another excellent way to explore the park, providing a personal encounter with the fjords and its marine life. There’s something truly special about paddling quietly through the remote bays, amidst bobbing icebergs and curious sea otters.
Kenai Fjords is an easily accessible park and is an ideal choice for first-time Alaska visitors. I have planned trips to Kenai Fjords for several of my clients as well as my own family.
6. Kobuk Valley National Park
One of the least visited parks in the U.S., Kobuk Valley National Park surprises with the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes – the Arctic’s own mini-desert. Additionally, it serves as a migration route for half a million caribou.
Like Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley National Park is accessible only by bush plane or hiking in. For those reasons, it is recommended for experienced backcountry travelers and is not a good choice for first-time Alaska visitors.
7. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve
Imagine a land where turquoise lakes shimmer beneath towering mountains, where bears roam free and salmon fill the rivers. This is Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Covering over four million acres, this is a place of astounding natural beauty, where Alaska’s rich tapestry of ecosystems all converge in one magnificent park.
Only accessible by plane or boat, the park’s remote location makes every visit feel like an exclusive adventure, a chance to experience Alaska’s wilderness as it was meant to be seen. From coastal rainforests and alpine tundra, to majestic mountain ranges and placid lakes, Lake Clark is the epitome of Alaska’s rugged landscape.
Lake Clark also offers incredible wildlife viewing opportunities. Brown bears are plentiful and often seen scouring the shoreline for fish and berries. Eagles soar overhead, while the rivers teem with sockeye salmon. In the forests and higher elevations, you might spot moose, lynx, or even elusive wolves.
The centerpiece of the park is Lake Clark itself, a crystal clear, 50-mile-long freshwater lake perfect for boating, fishing, or simply admiring from the shore. Kayaking and canoeing are popular activities, perfect for getting close to the park’s abundant wildlife and taking in the dramatic scenery at your own pace.
For the adventurous, Lake Clark is a perfect destination for backcountry hiking and camping. Trails range from recreational strolls along the lake to challenging multi-day hikes in the mountains. It’s a place where you’re free to roam, breathe in the fresh air, and immerse yourself in the untamed wilderness.
Lake Clark National Park is a good choice for Alaska travelers who can travel for at least two weeks or have previously traveled to Alaska. I have planned a trip for a client to Lake Clark who thought it was worth the effort to get there.
8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
The largest national park in the U.S., Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is six times the size of Yellowstone and larger than the country of Switzerland. It hosts volcanic landscapes, colossal glaciers, and the breathtaking St. Elias mountain range. It’s the ultimate playground for outdoor enthusiasts. And it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The park is crowned by four mountain ranges, including some of the highest peaks in North America. Together these ranges create a spectacular montage of volcanic landscapes, ice fields, and breathtaking vistas.
It’s a hiker’s paradise: with no designated trails around the backcountry, you’re free to choose your own path.
Interspersed within this harsh landscape are reminders of the human attempts to tame it. A testament to this is the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, where the remains of early 20th-century copper mines stand. A tour around the old mill town reveals a fascinating story of perseverance against the Alaskan wilderness.
The park is not just for hikers and history buffs, though. It offers a variety of activities that suit various fitness levels and interests. Rafting trips down the Copper and Chitina rivers offer great scenic views and the chance to see a variety of wildlife. Fishing enthusiasts will enjoy the park’s many streams, home to a dozen species of fish including salmon, Dolly Varden, and arctic grayling.
Wildlife within the park includes bears, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep, often spotted against the backdrop of impressive glaciers and mountain peaks. Birdwatchers can keep an eye out for trumpeter swans, bald eagles, and the elusive peregrine falcon.
Accessing the park may be a challenge in itself due to its sheer size and the vast wilderness, and is best for travelers who can devote at least two weeks to their Alaska trip or have been to Alaska before. This amazing park awaits the adventurous and promises awe-inspiring sights and experiences for those who venture its way.
Ready to start planning your Alaska adventure?
Alaska is a bucket-list destination for many of my clients. In addition to my experience and training, I partner with Alaska experts to design itineraries that are customized to my clients’ wishes. Or, if you don’t need a custom itinerary, I can help you find an escorted tour or cruise that meets your needs. Please read about how my services work and then contact me to get started.